Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Kazakhstan, the land of contrasts.

Within two days of entering Kazakhstan we had received no less than two offers of invitation to have dinner and sleep at homes of complete strangers. The kindness of the Kazakh people was evident from sharing a wonderful lunch with a man who owned a casino of sorts to being served chai and sweets by a woman who made beautiful floral arrangements. During a random stop on the side of the road, a son with his proud parents offered us a bag of treats and beautifully made prayer hats. The Kazakhstan we saw showed us kindness and hospitality.

And yet, when we talked with other travelers or Kazakh people themselves they would regale us with tales of corruption, greed and danger. During an evening dinner one mother, who had spent a decade in the States, insisted we take her mobile number and call us if we needed anything, insisting that the Kazakhstan we had seen did not exist or would not as we proceeded further west.

Cycling into Almaty could not have offered more of a stark contrast to the little we had seen of the enormous country. Almaty is a metropolis that is in the top 50 most expensive cities to live in, in the world. Designer clothing, accessories and expensive cars from Italy, Spain, France, Germany and London were on display on almost every street. Hotels that offered prices that would rival those of New York City were the norm.

Yet, outside of the second largest city in the country, the desert-like landscape offered little in vegetation but provided stunning backdrops. Small towns sold their wares in street markets where clothing, bread, vegetables and apples were amazingly inexpensive. Bread routinely sold for $.50 - $1, apples went for $.75 per kilo and several kilos of vegetables were priced to sell at $.50.

Kazakhstan, with all that we had heard about the country treated us with more respect than we gave it. Even the border guards who usually keep a stiff upper lip, smiled, waved and simply wanted to shake our hands.

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